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Better notification by credit cards

Almost all credit cards will let you download transactions. Many will e-mail you a balance or payment reminder once a month, or a warning if your balance goes above a certain amount. And I’ve seen a small number that will e-mail you on every transaction.

But does anybody have a smart notification system which I can set, allowing me to be comfortable that there is no misuse of my card without filling my mailbox?

  • At a basic level, notification (email or SMS) of transactions above a certain amount
  • Combine that with notification when a group of small transactions exceed a set amount or an amount of time goes by (E-mail only)
  • “You don’t need to notify me of this transaction” for your repeating transactions
  • Easy console to turn on or off warnings and fraud alerts on foreign locations

For those of us who are on e-mail or SMS literally every day, this is a lot better fraud protection for us than the systems they use now, especially the one that find us with denied transactions in unusual places.

Update: Thanks to all commenters — some cards are providing many of these services.

Content industry supports "Stop Airline Piracy Act" (SAPA)

Spokesmen for the MPAA, RIAA and several other content industry companies recently issued a statement of support for the new “Stop Airline Piracy Act” or SAPA, now before congress.

SAPA seeks to address the massive tide of copyright infringing material flowing into the USA on commercial airlines and delivery services. Today in China and many other countries, bootleg DVDs, CDs and software disks are being manufactured in bulk, and sold to visitors on the streets of these cities in illicit malls. Then, these visitors fly back to the USA with the pirate disks in their suitcases, taking them into the USA. Other Americans are ordering these pirate DVDs and having them shipped via both airlines and other shippers directly to their homes.

SAPA addresses this problem by giving content owners tools to cut down this pirate flow. A content owner, once they learn of an airline or shipping service which is regularly and repeatedly bringing pirated material into the country, can file claims alleging the presence of this infringement. The bill allows them to shut off the flow of money, traffic and customers to the airlines, by getting US companies to stop directing people to the airlines, and stopping payment services from transferring money to them.

“Last month, we worked with customs and border patrol to inspect planes coming into LAX from overseas,” said Pearl Alley, a spokesperson for the MPAA. “We found that every single plane of an unnamed airline had pirated material in passenger bags or in the hold. Not just a few planes, every single plane. Most planes had multiple pirated products, including DVDs and CDs, and files on laptops and music players.” Customs is able to seize any laptop or music player coming into the country for any reason and copy its drive to see what’s on it, according to CBP officials.

“These airlines and shippers are enabling and facilitating infringement. This has got to be stopped, and SAPA will stop it,” said Alley.

Under SAPA, an airline alleged to have been regularly carrying in pirated material can be blacklisted. Travel agents will be forbidden from booking passengers on the airline. Travel web sites can be ordered not to list flights or even the existence of the airline. Phone book and Yellow page companies can be ordered to remove any listings for the airline, and in some cases, phone switches can be ordered to not complete calls directed at airline phone numbers. Travel review books and sites can be ordered edited to delete mention of the airline or recommendations to fly on it.

To shut off the money flow, an accusation of alleged infringement under SAPA can result in an order to Visa, Mastercard, Paypal and other financial processors to not accept payments for the airline or shipping company. “They may be overseas, but we can stop them from destroying American jobs with tools we have at home,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), co-sponsor of the senate version of the bill.

Airports can also be prohibited from allowing the planes to land. However, planes in the air can file a counter-notice within 5 days of a claim, providing they subject themselves to US jurisdiction and agree to be liable if they are found to have copyright material in their holds. Aircraft which can’t file a counter notice are free to turn around on approach to LAX and return over the Pacific, but may not land at any airport in a country which has signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement with the USA.

“Legitimate Airlines, ones that are not carrying in pirated material every day, will not be harmed by this act, because of the counter-notice provision. In addition, if a rightsholder files a false claim, and there are no copyright violations on board the plane, the airline has a right to sue for damages over misuse of the act — so it’s all safe and does not block legitimate trade,” said Alley.

Several airlines, travel agencies and travel sites have, not surprisingly, filed opposition to this bill, but it is supported by a broad coalition of US job creators in Hollywood and Redmond, as well as domain name site GoDaddy.

Time for delivery companies to work weekends

This time of year I do a lot of online shopping, and my bell rings with many deliveries. But today and tomorrow, not Saturday. The post office comes Saturday but has announced it wants to stop doing that to save money. They do need to save money, but this is the wrong approach. I think the time has come for Saturday and Sunday delivery to be the norm for UPS, Fedex and the rest.

When I was young almost all retailers closed on Sunday and even had limited hours on Saturday. Banks never opened on the weekend either. But people soon realized that because the working public had the weekend off, the weekend was the right time for consumer services to be operating. The weekend days are the busiest days at most stores.

The shipping companies like Fedex and UPS started up for business to business, but online shopping has changed that. They now do a lot of delivery to residences, and not just at Christmas. But Thursday and Friday are these odd days in that business. An overnight package on Friday gets there 3 days later, not 1. (If you use the post office courier, you get Saturday delivery as part of the package, and the approximately 2 day Priority mail service is a huge win for things sent Thursday.) In many areas, the companies have offered Saturday and even Sunday delivery, but only as a high priced premium service. Strangely, the weekend also produces a gap in ground shipping times — the truck driving cross-country presumably pauses for 2 days.

We online shoppers shop 7 days a week and we want out stuff as soon as we can get it. I understand the desire to take the weekend off, but usually there are people ready to take these extra shifts. This will cost the delivery companies more as they will have to hire more workers to operate on the weekend. And they can’t just do it for ground (otherwise a 3 day package sent Friday arrives the same time as an overnight package.)

Update: I will point out that while online shipping is the David to the Goliath of brick & mortar, changing shipping to 7 days a week will mean a bunch more stuff gets bought online, and shipped, and will bring new revenue to the shipping companies. It’s just just a cost of hiring more people. It also makes use of infrastructure that sits idle 2 days a week.

This is particularly good for those who are always not hope to sign for packages that come during the work week. The trend is already starting. OnTrak, which has taken over a lot of the delivery from Amazon’s Nevada warehouse to Californians, does Saturday delivery, and it’s made me much more pleased with Amazon’s service. When Deliverbots arrive, this will be a no brainer.

It will be tough reversing Citizens United

There are a large number of constitutional amendments being proposed to reverse the effects of the recent US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Here the court held that Citizens United, a group which had produced an anti-Hilary Clinton documentary, had the right to run ads promoting their documentary and its anti-Clinton message. It had been held at the lower court that because the documentary and thus the ads advocated against a candidate, they were restricted under campaign finance rules. Earlier, however, the court had held earlier that it was OK for Michael Moore to run ads for Fahrenheit 9/11, his movie which strongly advocated against re-electing George W. Bush. The court could not find the fine line between these that the lower court had held, but the result was a decision that has people very scared because it strips most restrictions on campaigning by groups and in particular corporations. Corporations have most of the money, and money equals influence in elections.

Most attempts at campaign finance reform and control have run into a constitutional wall. That’s because when people talk about freedom of speech, it’s hard to deny that political speech is the most sacred, most protected of the forms of speech being safeguarded by the 1st amendment. Rules that try to say, “You can’t use your money to get out the message that you like or hate a candidate” are hard to reconcile with the 1st amendment. The court has made that more clear and so the only answer is an amendment, many feel.

It seems like that should not be hard. After all, the court only ruled 5-4, and partisan lines were involved. Yet in the dissent, it seems clear to me that the dissenters don’t so much claim that political speech is not being abridged by the campaign finance rules, but rather that the consequences of allowing big money interests to dominate the political debate are so grave that it would be folly to allow it, almost regardless of what the bill of rights says. The courts have kept saying that campaign finance reform efforts don’t survive first amendment tests, and the conclusion many have come to is that CFR is so vital that we must weaken the 1st amendment to get it.

With all the power of an amendment to play with, I have found most of the proposed amendments disappointing and disturbing. Amendments should be crystal clear, but I find many of the proposals to be muddy when viewed in the context of the 1st amendment, even though as later amendments they have the right to supersede it.

The problem is this: When they wrote that the freedom of the press should not be abridged, they were talking about the big press. They really meant organizations like the New York Times and Fox News. If those don’t have freedom of the press, nobody does. And these are corporations. Until very recently it wasn’t really possible to put out your political views to the masses on your terms unless you were a media corporation, or paid a media corporation to do it for you. The internet is changing that but the change is not yet complete.

Many of the amendments state that they do not abridge freedom of the press. But what does that mean? If the New York Times or Fox News wish to use their corporate money to endorse or condemn a candidate — as they usually do — is that something we could dare let the government restrict? Would we allow the NYT to do it in their newspaper, but not in other means, such as buying ads in another newspaper, should they wish to do so? Is the Fox News to be defined as something different from Citizens United?

I’m hard pressed to reconcile freedom of the press and the removal of the ability of corporations (including media ones) from using money to put out a political message. What I fear as that to do so requires that the law — nay, the constitution — try to define what is being “press” and what is not. This is something we’ve been afraid to do in every other context, and something I and my associates have fought to prevent, as lawsuits have tried to declare that bloggers, for example, were not mainstream press and thus did not have the same freedom of the press as the big boys.  read more »

A foveal digital camera sensor

Earlier I wrote about desires for the next generation of DSLR camera and a number of readers wrote back that they wanted to be able to swap the sensor in their camera, most notably so they could put in a B&W sensor with no colour filter mask on it. This would give you better B&W photos and triple your light gathering ability, though for now only astronomers are keen enough on this to justify filterless cameras.

I’m not sure how easy it would be to make a sensor that could be swapped, due to a number of problems — dust, connectivity and more. In fact I wonder if an idea I wrote about earlier — lenses with integrated sensors might have a better chance of being the future.

Here’s another step in that direction — a “foveal” digital camera that has tiny sensors in the middle of the frame and larger ones out at the edges. Such sensors have been built for a variety of purposes in the past, but might they have application for serious photography?

For example, the 5d Mark II I use has 22 million 6.4 micron sensors. Being that large, they are low noise compared to the smaller sensors found in P&S cameras. But the full frame requires very large, very heavy, very expensive lenses. Getting top quality over the large image circle is difficult and you pay a lot for it.

Imagine that this camera has another array, perhaps of around 16 million pixels of 1.6 micron size in the center. This allows it to shoot a 16MP picture in the small crop zone or a 22MP picture on the full frame. (It also allows it to shoot a huge 252 megapixel image that is sharp in the center but interpolated around the edges.) The central region would have transistors that could combine all the wells of a particular colour in the 4x4 array that maps to one large pixel. This is common in the video modes on DSLR cameras, and helps produce pixels that are much lower noise than the tiny pixels are on their own, but not as good as the 16x larger big pixels, though the green pixels, which make up half the area, would probably do decently well.

As a result, this camera would not be as good in low light, and the central region would be no better in low light than today’s quality P&S cameras. But that’s actually getting pretty good, and the results at higher light levels are excellent.

The win is that you would be able to use a 100mm/f2 lens with the field of view of a 400mm lens for a 16MP picture. It would not be quite as good as a real 400mm f/2.8L Canon lens of course. But it could compare decently — and that 400mm lens is immense, heavy and costs $10,000 — far more than the camera body. On the other hand a decent 100mm f/2.8 lens aimed at the smaller image circle would cost a few hundred dollars at most, and do a very good job. A professional wildlife or sports photographer might still seek the $10K lens but a lot of photographers would be much happier to carry the small one, and not just for the saved cost. You would not get the very shallow depth of field of the 400mm f/2.8 — it would be about double with a small sensor 100mm f/2 — but many would consider that a plus in this situation, not a minus.

You could also use 3.2 or 2.1 micron sensors for better low-noise and less of a crop (or focal length multiplier as it is incorrectly called sometimes.)

One other benefit is that, if your lens can deliver it, and particularly when you have decent lighting, you would get superb resolution in the center of your full frame photos, as the smaller pixels are combined. You would get better colour accuracy, without as many bayer interpolation artifacts, as you would truly sense each colour in every pixel, and much better contrast in general. You would be making use of the fact that your lens is sharper in the center. Jpeg outputs would probably never do the 250 megapixel interpolated image, but the raw output could record all the pixels if it is not necessary to combine the wells to improve signal/noise.

On Type O blood and being set in the past

A minor update on my main review of BSG:

After the show concluded, many viewers complained about how all the clues in the show had pointed — some very directly — to the show being set in the future, and little had suggested it would be set in the past.

Kevin Grazier, science adviser to the show, stated in his book The Science of Battlestar Galactica that Hera’s blood type was such a clue.

Hera had no blood antigens — ie. she was of type O. No colonial was of type O, they were all of types A, B and AB. Since we modern humans are quite commonly type O, this was supposed to be a clue that the story was in the past, and we all got this from Hera.

Except blood type genetics don’t work this way. Everybody has two genes (from two parents) for blood type. You can be AA, AO, AB, BB, BO or OO, getting either an A, B or O from each parent. There are only 4 types because people who are AO have type A blood, and people who are BO have type B blood. Only OO folks have type O blood — the O trait is recessive.

The problem is this. Even if Sharon (the mother) is OO, she can’t have a type O baby if she breeds with people who don’t have any type Os. The colonials are all AA, AB or BB. They have no AOs or BOs because if they did, they would have type O children from time to time. Grazier knows about the pairings and describes them in the book, but somehow misses this important element. So this is not a proper clue that the show is set in the past.

Wait — we could play some games, and give Sharon some magic special O genes that are dominant over A and B from humans, allowing a baby with type O blood. You could, but that would be some new magic, not any known science, and thus hardly something that clever viewers would take as a clue. To top it off, we must also now assume that none of the #8s in the fleet or colonial society ever got their blood typed. Perhaps that’s true, but pretty unlikely once the Cylons were identified and subjected to every medical test they could get their hands on. Sharon’s type O blood would have been well known, and Hera’s type would also be no surprise.

Am I being picky? Of course. But this is worthy of attack because Grazier is holding this out as an example both of the careful attention to scientific detail in the show, and as an example of how the clever viewer would have picked up a clue to the ending by paying attention. It is sadly, neither.

Grazier’s book also contains a major error about Mitochondrial Eve. It admits the mistake that MTE is not the “most recent common ancestor,” but it goes on to make a bigger mistake, saying that MTE is the sole ancestor of people alive today. That is about as wrong as you can get. In fact, most people alive at the time of MTE (and in fact most people alive somewhere around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, at what is termed the Identical ancestors point) is an ancestor of every human alive today. All of us are descended from all of them. It’s not actually all of them because some of them died without children or grandchildren or otherwise had lines that died out quickly. If somebody’s line did not die out quickly — so they got the usual brood of great-grandchildren and beyond — their tree of descendants quickly becomes so huge it can’t die out and can’t be anything but ancestor to all of us. (There are some exceptions when geographically isolated groups got wiped out completely before they had time to send out members to breed with the rest of humanity.)

Note that even though you are descended from everybody alive 20,000 years ago, that doesn’t mean you inherited DNA from all of them. Through the 700 to 1000 generations since those days, the DNA of most of them has been lost. You are actually descended from all of them many trillions of times over — they occupy lots of slots in your family tree, and some of them more than others. But at this distance the genetic contribution of most is diluted to nothing. The odds you would have any DNA (other than mitochondria) from a hypothetical single person who lived 150,000 years ago are quite slim.

Botswana / Falls panorama gallery up

I have put up a new gallery of panoramic photos from my trip earlier this year to Botswana (with short stays in South Africa and Zimbabwe.) There are some interesting animal and scenic shots, and also some technically difficult shots such as Victoria Falls from a helicopter. (I also have some new shots of Niagara falls from a fixed wing plane which is even harder.)

In the case of the helicopter, which is still moving as it was just a regular tour helicopter, the challenge is to shoot very fast and still not make mistakes in coverage. I took several panos but only a few turned out. Victoria Falls can really only be viewed from the air — on the ground the viewing spots during high water season are in so much mist that it’s actually raining hard all around you, and in any event you can’t see the whole falls. One lesson is to try not to be greedy and get a 200m pano. Stick to 50 to 100mm at most.

On this trip I took along a 100-400mm lens, and it was my first time shooting with such a long lens routinely. I knew intellectually about the much smaller depth of field at 400mm, but in spite of this I still screwed up a number of panoramas, since I normally set focus at one fixed distance for the whole pano. Stopping down 400mm only helps a little bit. Wildlife will not sit still for you, creating extra challenges. I already showed you this elephant shot but I am also quite fond of this sunset on the Okavango delta. While this shot may not appear to have wildlife, the sun is beaming through giant spiderwebs which are the work of “social spiders” which live in nests, all building the same web. I recommend zooming in on the scene in the center. I also have some nice regular photos of this which will be up later.


I am still a bit torn about the gallery of ordinary aspect ratio photos. I could put them up on my photo site easily enough, but I’ve noticed photos get a lot more commentary and possibly viewing when done on Google+/Picasa. This is a sign of a disturbing trend away from the distributed web, where people and companies had their own web sites and got pagerank and subscribers, to the centralized AOL style model of one big site (be it Facebook or Google Plus) which is attractive because of its social synergies.


Concept robocars at Tokyo Auto Show and more

As expected, there’s more news from the Tokyo auto show, which is well known for strange concept cars.

First there is the Toyota Fun Vii

The video is very science-fictional, though they have built a concept to look at without the auto-driving. Amusingly, they do show something I have always thought would be a nice ironic demo — playing a car racing game while in a self-driving car. While we are some distance away form a car where the entire surface, inside and out, is a display, I do think we’ll see display panels on robocars to help them act as taxis. Those display panels will say who the taxi is for, and might even have your favourite bumper sticker slogan while you move inside. Inside displays will be useful for all the things you would expect — dashboard, work and entertainment.

Toyota is also showing a Prius with a system them call AVOS (Automatic Vehicle Operation System.) While this is said to be a longer-term self-driving systems, report suggest that what will be done at the motor show is back-seat rides demonstrating parking ability and pickup at the door, similar to Nissan’s Pivo and Stanford’s Junior 3, but with some added obstacle avoidance. I have not seen reports of rides as yet. The Prius itself is use more basic sensors than the Google car and other major robocars.

Speaking of Nissan, this brief interview with Mitsuhiko Yamashita, head of R&D, still promotes the idea of dedicated lanes, which I believe would vastly slow the deployment of self-driving vehicles.

On the other hand, speaking of Google, here’s a New York Times op-ed by Sebastian Thrun with his picture of the future.